the tattooed man: Phil Cooper writes about his skin

I’ve been thinking for some time that I might get another tattoo, though without a clear idea of what it might be. As I approach my 50th birthday, I feel I’m moving into a phase of life that might be marked with some more ink. So, when I saw that Clive was planning the Skin/Skòra project, I knew that I’d found what I’d needed as the final push to go ahead.

I already have quite a few tattoos. My arms and shoulders are covered, and I have a large design on the left side of my chest and around my right thigh. Some were applied for specific reasons. I’ve two snakes on my right arm, the first one inked in my mid-twenties. It’s a small, simple, black design taken from a Greek vase of the third century BC. It’s just a shadow now, overlaid by a later and much more elaborate Japanese snake design in colour which covers my entire arm. I like the way (to risk sounding like something from ‘pseud corner’) that some of my tattoos are a record, bearing witness to how my life has evolved. The snake is a creature I’ve been drawn too since I can remember and it has often popped up in my life in quite serendipitous ways, so that its repeatedly suggested itself as the subject of my tattoos.

Other tattoos, such as the geometric designs I have up my left arm, don’t really have any specific personal meaning. I just liked the look of the patterns on my skin. I was fortunate to find talented tattooists in London, mainly Xed and Jason at Into You. I spent many hours with them as they worked on their designs, and we got to know each other fairly well. Jason tragically died just before he completed the Japanese snake. I left the final unfinished peony flower on my tricep as it was, in memory of him and his talent.

Moving to London in 1988 and finally coming out properly, was an intense period. I started to take my first faltering steps living openly as a gay man when such a life meant exposure not only to sometimes violent prejudice, but to a terrifying, hitherto unknown illness that was killing my friends horribly. My tattoos from that time were all black, geometric shapes, and they probably reflected how life was back then. It was a time of bold statements, When beautiful, talented young people in their twenties were dying, purely decorative tattoos just didn’t do it. I had three heavy, solid black stripes tattooed across the right side of my chest, and I remember somebody saying, ‘Oh, they look like bars across your heart’. Of course that was exactly what they were, although it wasn’t a conscious decision. After so much fear and grief my heart was pretty much out of bounds.

The mid-’90s were a dark time, my ‘wilderness years’ when I threw myself into full-on hedonism and went off the rails for a while. By 1999 I knew I had to start taking myself seriously and change how I was living or I wouldn’t see much of the new millennium. After a bleak couple of years I started to thrive again. Life took on more colour and more warmth, and my new tattoos from that period did the same. Pink cherry blossom and a big green snake coiling up my arm, full of movement and full of life.

I built a new career, and started having fun again, taking up rock-climbing and kayaking, which became major passions. My new hobbies got me out of the city and into the countryside. Kayaking through remote landscapes in northern Spain, the Hebrides and Morocco, and rock-climbing all over the UK. Not only did I have a great time, I also reconnected with parts of myself that had been forgotten for many years. The sheer delight of being out in nature, seeing wild flowers and animals and swimming in the sea. Clinging to rock faces dozens of feet up in the air put a lot of things into perspective, and brought my attention back to the joy of living on the moment. In 2007 I met the extraordinary man who was to become my husband.

When I met Jan I was commissioning health services for the NHS and local authorities, and he was a consultant psychiatrist. As we got to know each other Jan shared with me how much he used to enjoy photography, and I told him how much I’d once loved painting. We encouraged each other to pick up these pursuits again. Seven years on, Jan is no longer a doctor but has become a successful and accomplished professional photographer, and I’m… well I’m still commissioning health services, though I have picked up my paints and brushes again. But I am finishing my job in January and taking the plunge, moving over to Berlin to be with Jan and to become a struggling artist. As if that city doesn’t have enough of those. Nevertheless, I’m going to be joining them, scary and exciting as that is.

Getting back into painting again found me looking at other artists. One day as I was browsing the internet I came across an image that immediately caught my attention. It was a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins of The Green Knight. Seeing it was the start of what became a wonderful friendship, and I’ve been enthralled by Clive’s work since. This year I’ve acquired a drawing and a painting by him, The Dragon of Many Colours, and The Catch, the latter with it’s dreamy, tattooed fisherman.

My tattoos were executed over a period of about 15 years in total. I had them done for a variety of reasons: some were celebratory, some to act as talismans to carry me through difficult times, some as declarations to the world. I haven’t had any work done for about eight or nine years. The motivation to have more seemed to wane as I grew older and mellowed out. Times, and my life, changed. But now, with Skin/Skóra, the threads of the past and the present are coming together: Tattoos, and painting, finding Clive, acquiring a painting by him of a tattooed man, talking with him of designing a tattoo for me, and yet to come, becoming a tattooed man in in one of his planned portraits for the project. I’m so excited and so pleased to be part of it.

One of the ideas we’ve been talking about as a theme for my design is a ‘green man’, a mythological figure I’ve identified with all my life, and that I’ve reconnected with in recent years. I may yet decide on a different theme (I’m also in love with Clive’s killer gingerbread zombies from his forthcoming Hansel & Gretel book), but I’m especially drawn to the green man idea. The connection with the natural world, the spirit in the tree and the eternal budding and blossoming of life, feels right at the moment as I reach my half century, and look forward of the next!

Phil Cooper, 25th November, 2014.

‘sold’ to the man with with the smile on his face!

Sold at Oriel Tegfryn

The Catch

acrylic on panel – 42 x 42 cm – 2014


While torrents of words have been written by art historians about painters and their works, and while newspapers and periodicals carry the pronouncements of critics on exhibitions of works both historic and contemporary, and there are even inveterate private collectors who occasionally pronounce on their collecting policies, there is very little written by individuals who set out on a mission to purchase a particular painting. Perhaps that’s because art-buyers are shy about trumpeting their acquisitions, or don’t feel able to express in words the feelings that drive their collecting.


Phil Cooper is not yet a collector, and indeed may never be one, though by admission he felt compelled to purchase his most recent painting, which might be a sign of an incipient obsession. (I’ve know many art collectors who started out innocently enough with the getting of one or two paintings, but then found themselves in the undertow of an unexpected and hard-to-control passion-to-acquire.) But for now, and I hope hereafter, Phil has been measured in his judgements and acquisitions. He is a man who has collected two works by a single painter, and that painter is me. He purchased the study of a dragon I’d made for the cover of the just-about-to-be-launched Marly Youmans novel Glimmerglass, and yesterday he wrote to tell me that he’s acquired a painting I’ve written about here on the Artlog, The Catch.

Phil is an artist himself, and so he sees things with an informed eye. He’s open-hearted and candid in his writing on his own blog, and he’s a generous commenter on the blogs of other artists. In his letter to me he wrote beautifully about what had drawn him to the painting and made him want to have it in his home, and as a direct result of that, he agreed to write again, a piece for public consumption at the Artlog. Here it is:

“I first came across Clive’s work about three and a half years ago. I think I was Googling ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ and amongst the images that popped up was a beautiful painting of the head of the green knight that I now know to be one of three studies Clive made on the subject some years ago. The strong composition and colour palette, the intensity and poetry of the Knight’s expression, and an elusive quality that is less easy to define, all stopped me in my tracks and I went ‘whoa, what’s this?’. I started to jump from one link to another, greedily gobbling up all the fantastic images that lit up my screen. By the end of the evening I was hooked and I went on to become an avid fan of Clive’s work, which I’ve been following ever since on the fantastic, peerless Artlog.


Recently, I started to think about acquiring a painting and at about the same time I saw a new work begin to emerge on Artlog. A thumbnail sketch appeared of a bearded man holding a basket or platter of fish. The sketch had all the hallmarks of Clive’s preparatory drawings; dynamic energy, exciting composition, crackling negative space and an exquisite use of line and mark making.


When the finished painting of ‘The Catch was revealed online a few days later, I was so taken with it I’d keep snatching a glimpse on my iPad throughout the day, poring over the details and the marvellous effect of the whole. At first I was struck by the glow of the fisherman’s pale skin and red hair against the dark blues and blacks of the sea and sky. Then the beautifully painted mackerel, and tattoo also caught my eye, but what I was drawn back to, what really enthralled me, was that face, with the dreamy, unfathomable, eyes-closed expression.


Clive wrote a superb ‘from start to finish’ post about the evolution of ‘The Catch’ on the Artlog, the kind of post that blogging was invented for in my opinion, and being given such a detailed insight into how the painting came into being made me love it even more. Clive wrote about how he wrestled with the eyes of the fisherman, spending a lot of time just staring at the work in progress, trying to pinpoint what might be needed to ‘clinch it’. He mentioned that painting the figure with his eyes closed was a risk, that it could break the connection between the painting and the viewer. It’s true that we cannot know what is going on behind those eyelids; is his reverie concerned with past pain or pleasure, dreams or fears of the future? The tattoo unfolding down his arm depicts a ship pursued by a monstrous nautilus; had he escaped such peril at sea? Is he re-living a nightmare ‘flashback’? Or are his eyes closed in a moment of private relief and gratitude? At the point in time captured in the painting, the fisherman is holding a shallow wooden bowl of plump, tasty-looking mackerel, an armful of riches from the sea, so whatever may have happened is in the past  because right now he is blessed with plenty. There are a couple of fish that look different. Clive referred to them as ‘ghost’ fish. Do they signify the one that got away, a lost love, or the fish yet to be captured, a love yet to be won? Whatever feelings are being felt, that face looks calm to me, soft, the bulky shoulders strong but relaxed, the body and mind quite still. In contrast to the choppy waves and the currents sweeping around the quay, this man is steady and rooted, firmly cradling his precious, hard-won catch. Life’s storms and squalls eddy around him, the waves buffet him, possibly leaving him marked or scarred, but both he and his glittering, miraculous bounty remain intact.


Some of these ideas may have informed my decision to go for this particular work of Clive’s. What moves me about a painting and connects me to it might be a whole range of things, some of which I can appreciate consciously and intellectually such as my love of particular colour palettes and imagery, the fine qualities of composition and form, or the beautiful mark making and brushwork. But I know there will also be all kinds of messages bubbling up from my psyche that I won’t quite understand but that might just push my choice in a particular direction, whispering ‘that one, it’s that one’ in my ear.


What prompted me to go for ‘The Catch’? Well, one reason I wanted to treat myself to a painting was to give myself something for getting through a very difficult year. We lost my dad last November, an extraordinary, lovely man, and then other challenges came along to blight the last few months, though thankfully these are now ebbing away. I kept coming back to that face, and it reached out to me, something about it saying ‘relax, all is well, stop fretting about those waves out to sea. You’re safe here. Look, your bowl is full of marvels’. The closed eyes really did clinch it for me, they may prevent a more direct contact with the fisherman and his emotional world, but they also seal a particular kind of ephemeral magic into the painting, fixing it like a shimmering gossamer soap bubble stretched across the frame.


I’m just so chuffed to bits to have been able to acquire this painting and I look forward to getting to know it better very soon when I pick it up after the forthcoming exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn. I thought ‘The Catch’ could be an early 50th birthday present to myself, though as I don’t reach my half century until next April it’s a very early present – but I couldn’t let this one get away!


Thanks Clive for letting me share my thoughts on the Artlog. It was a pleasure writing about how I fell for your wonderful painting.”

Phil Cooper. 14/08/14


from start to finish: ‘The Catch’

Detail of The Catch

There were three models for the fisherman of The Catch. The first was the real thing, glimpsed in the Rialto Market in Venice when Peter and I were there on holiday. He was hosing down his catch, and I circumnavigated the market several times to memorise his face. This was many years ago, but I’m good at storing remembered material for later use. While the Rialto fisherman was dark-haired, the other two models had fair to red colouring. Curator Simon Martin of the Pallant House Gallery was one of my references… he’d just had a very sharp hair-cut when we last saw him back in June… and the artist Paul Bommer was the other.

These are the first drawings of the Rialto fisherman, made from memory.

Then come the compositional sketches.

Above: the initial idea is to have the fisherman cradling the tray of fish.

Then I try him front-facing…

… before returning to his profile, though with the tray more loosely held.

The setting behind him in the sketch above is of Aberporth. But then I change my ideas, and make a background of Aberystwyth sea-front with ‘Old College’ taking pride of place and filling the upper quarter of the composition.

This last sketch is the final template for the painting, with the fisherman and his setting resolved. The outline of the figure is softer than in the earlier studies, sweeping up left of the composition. His shoulders though squared to the front, are more relaxed.

The painting begins. Acrylic on gessoed panel measuring 42 x 42 cm.

Below: the painting in progress amid my pots of Golden heavy-bodied acrylic. Because I am away from the studio I’ve brought many pots of paint to cover all eventualities, though the the final palette is muted, with the colours mixed from a very few pigments.

Below: the face begins to emerge, and a sheet of flame is added to the roof of Old College.

At this point I begin to think about the fisherman’s tattoo. My starting points are our Penparc Cottage plates, bowls and mugs from Gwili Pottery. I don’t know whether there’s an official name for the design, but we just call them the ‘shell’ china. Nothing so grand as a ‘service’, but a motley collection acquired piecemeal over a number of years. Hand painted, it seems to me that the designer must have produced a ‘pattern-book’ of elements, because no two pieces are the same. The china-painters of the Gwili workshops must have been given the freedom to fit the various individual designs to the objects under their brushes, whether mugs, plates or bowls. There’s a wonderful freedom to this ‘design’, as painters freely extemporise on the theme. Some mugs have a cluster of mussels at their bottoms, while others have a Caucus Race of them garlanded about their inside rims. Sometimes nautilus shells issue forth an elegant sufficiency of tentacles, while others sprout sheaves of them, streaming like hair in a riptide. Clam shells are made elaborate with sgrafitto coils and embellishments, and starfish squirm between razor-shells and whelks.

The shell design has turned up in many of my Aberporth still-life paintings. Like the Gwili workshop decorators, I ‘riff’ on the theme.

My first idea for the tattoo is merely decorative, a device to clad the skin in a marine pattern, seen on the left, here

But then I decide that what’s needed is drama and a hidden narrative, and I invent a scenario of a vessel plunging into the depths, a giant nautilus pursuing it with snaky tentacles. I use the ‘clipper’ motif from another Aberporth piece, a small oval box I’d decorated with a ship and waves about ten years ago. Because the box, filled with pralines, had been a gift from our friend Rex Harley, the newly decorated version became ‘Rex’s Box’, and has been titled as such in the many, many paintings it’s appeared in. (See third image above.)

‘Rex’s Box’

I play a lot with the design before I’m happy with it.

It’s a complicated idea, and I need to be confident enough to get it down quickly in paint for it to remain fresh. So I draw the nautilus-pursued vessel many times on paper before reaching for my brushes.

Finally I’m ready, and I nail it in one ‘take’. The sgrafitto means that things have to be done quickly, as the paint stays wet enough to work through with the end of the brush handle for only about forty seconds.

I paint in the embankment that holds the right side of the composition, adding sgrafitto to define the stonework.

Next come the fish. I work on them for a couple of days, and this time it takes three attempts to get things right, and there’s much sanding down and re-painting in between my failures. I ditch my original notion of many fish overlaying each other, and simplify everything so as to leave lots of pleasing negative spaces between five of them. The ‘ghost’ fish are a last minute idea. I like the strangeness of them, and their pallid contrast to the vividness of the ‘real’ fish.


Finally I come back to the fisherman’s head, which has remained unfinished as I wasn’t clear about what I wanted from it. This is the first completed version

Something is not quite right. I feel the uneasiness that always makes me reassess what I’ve produced. After an hour or two of gazing, I sand back the lower half of the face, shortening the nose as I paint it for the second time. Then I rub back and re-paint the eye so that it’s closed, and everything begins to fall into place. He appears to be in a reverie, or perhaps dreaming.

As a final change, I crop his beard so that it falls short of the curve of his T-shirt neckline, and disconnect his previously conjoined eyebrows to soften his expression. The painting is completed the evening of Saturday 2nd August. Measuring just over 40 cm square and made on the dining-room table in Penparc Cottage, it took eight days to complete, not including the preparatory ‘thinking time’.

The Catch

Clive Hicks-Jenkins


All enquires the Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge

‘The Catch’

The Catch

Acrylic on gessoed panel. 42 x 42 cm. 2014

Peter and I have spent the last week at Penparc Cottage for a much needed break away from all things internet-ish. There have been al fresco suppers and lunches in the garden, coastal walks, twice daily swims and chases along the beach for Jack and evenings spent cooking and reading.


Peter has very nearly completed his book on Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and I started and finished my painting for Oriel Tegfryn’s ‘Menai Festival of the Sea’ exhibition, begun at Ty Isaf in a series of portraits of a bearded fisherman, and completed on Friday evening with the final addition of a tray of mackerel. I shall write about the stages of the painting later this week. (I photographed it comprehensively from start to finish, complete with mistakes and changes-of-heart.) But for now, you can see the painting at the top of this post, together with the preliminary sketch (below) that pretty much nailed the way I wanted it to look just before the paints and brushes came out.

Preliminary sketch for The Catch